Chinese tourists to Yellowknife eclipse Japanese

The Yellowknife Visitors Centre reports that visitors from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have begun to overtake Japanese tourists in Yellowknife, the result of a trend that goes back to 2010.

Chinese tourism to Canada has skyrocketed since 2010

Chiaki is from Osaka, Japan, and came to see the northern lights. She is one of nearly 7,000 visitors to the Yellowknife Visitors Centre so far this month, but one of proportionately fewer Japanese tourists than any recent year. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC )

Bilingual menus in Yellowknife are frequently written in English and Japanese, but that may not be the case in the future, according to Yellowknife's Northern Frontiers Visitors Centre.

Numbers from the past few seasons point to an explosion of tourism generally, but growth has come especially from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

"It's one of the fastest growing tourism markets in the world, and it's something that has had a particular impact on Yellowknife where we are such an appreciated destination among east Asian markets in general," says Elijah Forget, communications director at the visitors centre. 

China added Canada to its "approved destinations" list in 2010, meaning that trips became significantly easier. That led to an immediate boom in visitors.

Canada-wide, tourism from China in July was up 23.6 per cent compared to July 2015, continuing a trend that has been steady since 2010. 

Forget says this chimes with what he has seen here, where last year for the first time Chinese visitors outnumbered those from Japan. 

That has had consequences for the tourism industry. Tour companies have begun hiring Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, and Chinese-focused operations have launched as well.

The aurora borealis in Yellowknife. The 11-year cycle of solar activity that dictates the intensity of the northern lights is entering its downward period. (James Pugsley/Astronomy North)
Areas not as directly tied to the aurora have also benefited.

While Japanese tourists tend to buy multiple small items like dried morels and tea as gifts for their whole offices, Chinese tourists have opted for fewer, big-ticket items, says Forget.

Gone with the (solar) wind

Forget suspects, however, that the boom may be about to wane with the aurora. The 11-year cycle of solar activity that dictates the intensity of the northern lights is entering its downward period, and won't rebound until the early 2020s. 

"This is not something that the visitors are not aware of, and what we could be seeing is visitors sneaking in before it gets not as good," says Forget. 

Japanese tourists in particular are known for their affinity for the aurora, although Forget says Chinese tourists also express interest in northern lights tours.

"Pretty much everyone coming in our fall and winter season, the vast majority, are here for the aurora." 

Cycles being cycles, however, the intensity of the northern lights will eventually return, says Forget. So even if tourism slows down temporarily it would likely rebound when the lights return to the sky in earnest.